You are drawn into a magical world when crossing the wooden bridge over Alisal Creek, as the enticing smells of oak smoke and barbecue offer more olfactory goodness than you can parse, other than sensing you want it all. Next, you’re crossing the Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort’s broad Oval Lawn, festively set with numerous tables topped with fresh flowers, Edison lights strung high above for when the sun sets over the ridge. And suddenly you realize that there’s nothing cuter than kids in cowboy hats. Welcome to the newest version of the Old West, family style. Welcome to California Ranch Cookouts.
Think of the Cookouts as the Alisal’s excuse to throw a crazy culinary party, where, somehow, people might line dance to the Rolling Stones — and “Beast of Burden” at that. The venerable property partners its own talented chef Anthony Endy with guest visiting chefs who want to flaunt their barbecue chops, which sometimes include actual chops. The September 26 edition starred Iron Chef Cat Cora, so the menu had a definite Mediterranean/Greek slant, from souvlaki pork kabobs to rotisserie Wagyu beef shawarma — think a killer beef cut meets a gyro, and both win. And, in perhaps my favorite food name ever, a “flaming cheese station,” featuring scarfable oak-grilled halloumi redolent of lemon and oregano.
But the food — and I cannot begin to say how much food there was, with plenty of vegetarian and pescatarian options — seemed almost half of the point of the evening. The Alisal’s lovely little pocket of the Santa Ynez Valley is particularly bucolic and soul-refreshing, so there’s that. But it’s clear for many this was a family fun event — there were so many children that the band joked they had requests to play both “Baby Shark” and “The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round.” Here’s hoping the kids, who came from as far as Tucson, Seattle, and Texas, got by on covers of the Eagles, Van Morrison, Steve Miller, and Gretchen Wilson.
And adult beverages were to be had, with signature cocktails from both Cora (an Ouzotini with pomegranate and mint) and Endy (a huckleberry smash) plus beer from Topa Topa and wine from Dragonette Cellars.
Since you eat buffet-style, all the tables are set to the number in your reservation — even when you’re with a family, this isn’t family-style. Our two-top was right in front of the dessert station, which the very pleasant and helpful staff were willing to let me dive into even before the main food was available. It wasn’t easy to delay devouring delights like Basque cheesecake and rolled pistachio baklava, just two of at least 10 choices; one young girl decided a cup full of whipped cream at the hot chocolate station was good enough for her.
The October 7 edition of California Ranch Cookouts reaches even further for its guest chef, as James Beard Award–winning, third-generation pitmaster Sam Jones will bring his famed North Carolina barbecue skills to the Alisal. No doubt people will get the chance to pig out. And sorry if that pun was aimed at the child who requested “Baby Shark.”
Pitmaster Sam Jones will join Chef Anthony Endy at the next California Ranch Cookout Thursday, October 7, at The Alisal Guest Ranch & Resort, 1054 Alisal Road, Solvang; (800) 425-4725; alisal.com.